By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
Suppose you could be in charge of hiring the person who would direct a dramatic motion picture about the life Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who selflessly helped save the lives of more than 6,000 (estimated) European Jews who were trying to flee Germany’s Nazi Party circa 1940.
On paper, the best choice would be a person with the skill, talent, vision and know-how to direct a motion picture, of course, but also someone who brought to the table a first-hand understanding, knowledge and experience of Japanese culture and the Japanese language.
Furthermore, this movie director would also have those same attributes but with regard to Jewish culture and traditions.
It wouldn’t be a requirement, of course, to have such an individual direct a movie about Sugihara. But seems like it wouldn’t hurt, right?
As it turns out, such a person exists — and his name is Cellin Gluck. His Sugihara movie is titled “Persona Non Grata.”
Since I learned of the astounding story of Chiune Sugihara, it’s been a mystery to me why there was never a big-budget biopic from a Hollywood studio about his life. Kind of like the story of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat team, if Sugihara’s story weren’t true, it would just seem utterly outlandish and unbelievable.
Some facts of Sugihara’s story: He served the Japanese government as the consul in Lithuania. He was also fluent in Russian. In 1940, during his assignment, desperate European Jews trying to escape the deadly grasp of the Nazis came to his office looking for an escape route. They needed visas to get out, which he could provide. But Sugihara’s superiors in Tokyo refused his requests asking for permission to help them.
In a decision that would seemingly ruin his own future in Japan’s diplomatic corps, Sugihara defied the orders and set about the task of issuing some 6,000 visas to Jews wishing to flee.
The Japanese government eventually rewarded Sugihara by firing and forgetting about him. Decades would pass, but some of those whose lives he helped save would seek him out and bring him out of obscurity. Israel honored him with its highest accolades. Only after his death did Japan’s government finally realized the import of the actions of their rogue diplomat, Chiune Sugihara.
To date, no major Hollywood studio has deigned to produce a movie about Sugihara’s life. This, despite the success of a movie about another “righteous gentile” named Oskar Schindler, who also saved the lives of many Jews. His story was famously told in “Schindler’s List” in 1993. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and was awarded seven Oscars, including nods for best picture and best director.
Meantime, there have been other Holocaust-related movies since that auspicious title. “The Pianist.” “Life Is Beautiful.” “Jakob the Liar.” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Even “Inglourious Basterds.” Some won even won Oscars.
But in this country, only the 26-minute long independent production “Visas and Virtue” attempted to tell Sugihara’s story. The 1997 movie won an Oscar in the short-form live-action category, and was co-written and directed by Chris Tashima, who also played Sugihara. But it only scratched the surface of Sugihara’s story.
If Hollywood wouldn’t do it, who would? Enter Cellin Gluck.
Gluck was generous enough with his time to chat on the phone and finally meet me for coffee. He said he first learned of Sugihara’s story after a friend gave him a copy of the book “The Fugu Plan” by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer. It must have been an omen for the future.
At the personal level, Gluck is the son of J.F. Gluck of Detroit, Mich., and Sumiye Hiramoto, a Nisei from Lodi, Calif., and he was born in Wakayama, Japan. He grew up speaking English and Japanese. He got his distinctive first name via his dad, an art historian and archeologist, who admired the Salt Cellar, at the time attributed to the famed Italian sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, so much that he used a shortened version of the artist’s last name for his son.
“When I was a little kid he took me to the Met to look at it and it wasn’t there anymore,” Gluck said. His dad asked what happened to it and they told him they weren’t sure whether the work was actually by Cellini, or the “work of one of his disciples, Jacopo or Jacobelli or something. My dad cracked up. Oh well, you’re named after a fake.”
But since his dad’s name was Jacob, “He named me after himself in a roundabout way,” Gluck said.
Gluck works and lives in L.A. County, is married to Karin Beck and has a daughter, Caroline, and son, Griffin.
He established P.I.G. USA, a production company that produces commercials, originally for the Japanese market, but a look at Gluck’s list of credits on IMdB Pro shows a very solid body of work going back decades, mostly as an assistant director or AD, with credits on some pretty big-name productions, working with some top-name directors. He became a member of the Director’s Guild of America along the way.
Gluck got his first full directing credit with the 2009 Japanese version of “Sideways,” followed by a co-directing gig with Hideyuki Hirayama on “Oba: The Last Samurai” in 2011, for which he also co-wrote the screenplay. One of the stars of that was Toshiaki Karasawa, who told Gluck he wanted to work with him someday, after seeing Gluck’s version of “Sideways.”
Unbeknownst to Gluck, Japan’s Nippon Television had decided produce a Sugihara movie, starring Karasawa. Karasawa got his wish, as NTV approached Gluck to direct.
Be here two weeks from now for more on Cellin Gluck and his movie, “Persona Non Grata.”
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2016 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.